File image: Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi
Much has been stated and discussed about the single-party dominance in the Indian democracy in recent times. During assembly elections, the prevalent question has been whether the ruling party at the Centre can continue its election juggernaut or the likelihood of one of the opposition parties emerging victorious.
It remains the same for the upcoming assembly elections in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well, where the chances of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory are remote. This puts the spotlight on the performance of Congress (I) along with the regional parties.
Politically, this would be the biggest test for Congress leader Rahul Gandhi yet. The onus is on the Member of Parliament from Wayanad, in Kerala, to prove that the Congress is still a party to reckon with as the conditions in these states favour the Congress more than elsewhere in India.
Buck The Trend?
While the Congress and the left parties are part of a coalition and form the third front in West Bengal, Kerala has been a fierce battleground for both these parties. They have faced each other electorally and have formed alliances under their respective leaderships.
Kerala has a history of alternating governments every five years. Since it has been a bipolar contest often (the BJP-lead National Democratic Alliance will form the third front this time and has made significant inroads in the state, but not sufficient to form a government of its own), the opposition front has always usurped the role of the shadow cabinet ready to take over from the ruling party in the subsequent elections.
This time around, the formidable leadership of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has rekindled the hope of continuity of the incumbent, thus making the election extremely exciting and competitive.
If the Congress loses once again in Kerala, there are speculations that many of the Congress leaders will migrate to the BJP; unlike in other parts of India, the aaya ram gayya ram culture is not yet dominant in Kerala) and that the party would disintegrate in Kerala as well.
At the same time, a good performance by the Congress and its partners in Kerala as well as in Tamil Nadu would help Gandhi to revive his political career and may help his acolytes to pitch him for the national chief’s post again. Herein, a lot depends on the party’s performance in Kerala since the Congress can only play a secondary role in a possible Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) victory in Tamil Nadu.
The Nehru-Gandhi family has a history of receiving high respect and admiration in Kerala. From senior Congress leaders to private secretaries, Keralites have played crucial roles in the family for several generations. This was further reiterated by Rahul Gandhi’s victory at Wayanad, and the wave that the Congress-led United Democratic Front enjoyed in the 2019 polls.
In Kerala, he is seen as the vanguard of secular politics and the champion to fight the communal parties. He was instrumental in the minorities — Kerala’s electoral verdicts are decided by the minorities given their population and their direct participation in the power politics — supporting the UDF in masse for a historic win in 2019 for the UDF in Kerala.
Gandhi’s recent sorties in the sea and the continued discussion around it shows that he enjoys a special space in Kerala politics this time as well. His unprecedented attack on the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the counterattack led by Vijayan and the LDF shows that they recognise the formidable challenge that the Nehru scion could pose.
Opening The Innings
Opinion poll surveys held in Kerala indicate the LDF winning the polls, riding on Vijayan’s popularity. One of the weak links of the Congress is its poor leadership skills, as was shown in the surveys, and which resulted in the re-engineering carried out by the high command after the local body election debacle in December.
Gandhi promoting himself as an opener in the batting order may surprise the Opposition and help the middle order (with some changes in the line-up) to steady the innings as the game progresses. His appeal, especially among the minorities voters (which also includes the minorities within the majority community), those within the coastal belts and in the high ranges would be crucial for the UDF.
A Chance To Change
Kerala is an engrained social welfare state. Though in 1991, it was the Congress government that opened up the economy, Gandhi has taken a different approach to liberalisation. Both in Parliament and outside he has spoken on the importance of socialism and essentially for the Congress to adhere to socialistic principles. This is soothing to the electorate of Kerala and for the Congress leadership in the state. It helps Gandhi to identify himself with the political narratives on the governance and administrative sides prevalent in the state that nobody can easily escape from.
The G23 has time and again shared their concerns and challenges about the impending leadership crisis in the Congress. This is a good opportunity for Gandhi to resurrect his career by leading from the front which would eventually help the Congress of Kerala in this election.
This will also have a tremendous influence in Tamil Nadu as well. Politics is about building narratives and establishing communication. How the leadership builds the narrative around Gandhi, not only as the chief campaigner but also a willing face to take up the responsibilities, would determine the poll outcome in Kerala.
It will also send out a message at the national level, if he becomes Chief Minister, at least till 2024.